The morning sun lights up Star Island off the coast of Rye Beach, New Hampshire
The most densely packed region of the Western Hemisphere is the I-95 corridor between Boston and Washington, DC. With over 50 million residents, it accounts for 17% of US population within only 2% of US landmass. It averages 1,000 people per square mile while the US average is 80.5 people per square mile. It holds 20% of US Gross Domestic Product. Today, I skirted it and drove through it on the Edge Trek. After spending the first part of this trip in the least densely populated portion of the US east of the Mississippi with fewer than 1 person per square mile in Northern/Western Maine. It was a culture shock to say the least.
My plan was to stick to the coast on US 1 and US 1A as much as possible in the hopes I could skirt the madness of the Megalopolis. This works until cities like Portsmouth, Boston, Providence, Bridgeport and New York — all of which are hanging over the edge — come into play. In those cases, the hope was that I could time things so that my drive south was against traffic flow, or happened in an off-peak time period. To put it bluntly and immodestly, I ruled.
The early morning was glorious — down the rest of the Maine coast and through New Hampshire, enjoying surprising places like Rye Beach, New Hampshire which managed to be a beautiful vacation spot on the coast without being too touristy. Then came Massachusetts. Geographically, Boston is like a pac-man mouth, with the big city as the throat and it’s reach out to the edge like the teeth and lips. From Newburyport south to the Cape, everything is within it’s bite. And it even dribbles out down the chin to Providence, RI. You can get there from the city with relative ease, and this means that the edge — for the entire length of the corridor really — becomes a very different place.
This is not to say it is unpleasant, or lacking in beauty in spots. But it has become a place of escape. It is where the madding crowds run away to escape the madding crowds — which of course isn’t happening because the madding crowds are all at the edge trying to escape. It is an edge with its back specifically turned to the west. Specifically aimed at the great empty sea. Specifically altered to be not what is behind it. Elsewhere on the edge sea towns, even vacation towns, seem to have a sense of that which they are hanging off. Here they almost defiantly turn away, anchoring themselves firmly in the face of the rising sun, though occasionally forgetting to leave behind all they hoped.
No where is that more evident than Newport, RI. Originally rising to fame on the backs of the whaling and slave trade business, the city of Newport is now, perhaps, best known for the “summer cottages” along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive. Pound for pound, I’d put Newport against any city in the world for magnificence of residential architecture. And I don’t mean that in a design sense, though the design of many of the “cottages” is sublime. I mean in the sense of utter impracticality, yet inspiring and exhilarating presence. These houses are ridiculously large and lavish and they still manage to occupy their ground in a piece. Scaled to their setting they got their start when rich Southern plantation owners began building places to escape the summer heat. Not to by outdone, the gilded age barons of industry from the big cities like New York and Boston, from Vanderbilts, and Astors, all the way to descendants of the American Royalty like Kennedys (John and Jackie were married there) plopped their “mine is bigger/better/more unique than your’s” homes on lots the size of stadiums so they could escape the din of the city. What they ended up with, was a society as busy and complicated and gossipy as they left behind. Edith Wharton wrote a book about it. What they left us with, thanks to an active preservation group, is a remarkable way to spend a day letting your imagination run wild. To be sure, there are still families leaving behind the melee of the corridor to join the melee of the summer season in Newport, but for the most part, the real gems are preserved and open to the public so that we can pretend. From Greco-Roman marble manners, to towering Victorians, to gleaming white veranda-clad plantation homes, Newport is worth the time to visit and wander.
Newport is also the place where, in 1965 amidst national turmoil, a poor black man from Texas showed up at the Newport Folk Festival with a guitar and, instead of protest folk songs for the largely white audience, sang of real pain, and real love, and real vengeance, and real redemption. Lightnin’ Hopkins stole the show. The irony of that in a place like Newport is nothing compared to actually watching the performance, which you can still do online, and which I strongly encourage.
Having successfully slipped through and under Boston with relative ease, and enjoyed a wonderful few hours touring around Newport, it was time to blast down the Connecticut coastline in such a way as to hit New York City with the best chance of avoiding disaster. That meant a hop-scotch of I-95 and US 1 with the hopes of making it to the Garden State Parkway and across to New Jersey with my sanity in tact. With the help of Wayz and my impeccable timing, I can say the trip was stress-free. I’m crediting the zen rock from yesterday.
New Jersey, in general, gets a bad rap. The bulk of the state — the coastline and the central pine barrens, and the southern farmland are actually very nice. I’ve been through and around in the state many times in the past. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s trip south as well. Avoiding the vomit-inducing places like Atlantic City is easy, and the whole trip doesn’t take long anyway. I’m trying to get to the eastern shore area of Virginia — specifically the Onancock area — to see a relative who has lived and thrived on the edge there for years. I’m hoping to learn some things. I’m hoping to share those with you when I do. From the most powerful escape artists of the corridor to the happy Acadians of northern Maine sawing trees and dispensing hospitality, the edge continues to intrigue me. As I continue to ply my way southward, I don’t expect that to change at all.